Guy Benson

Forgive my cynicism, but I'm deeply suspicious of this idea, floated by Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell:
 

Congress and the White House could raise the debt limit for a few months while they seek a comprehensive, long-term budget deal, Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell said on Sunday.  The Obama administration has warned it will run out of money to pay the nation's bills if Congress does not raise the $14.3 trillion debt limit by August 2 -- a prospect that could push the country back into recession and upend global financial markets.

Congressional Republicans, particularly in the House of Representatives, have balked at raising the debt ceiling unless it is accompanied by significant spending cuts. McConnell said on Sunday the ceiling could be raised enough to last a few months so that negotiations can continue on a larger deal that would include changes to so-called entitlement programs like Medicare.

"The president and the vice president, everybody knows you have to tackle entitlement reform," McConnell said on CBS's Face the Nation. "If we can't do that, then we'll probably end up with a very short-term proposal over, you know, a few months. And we'll be back having the same discussion again in the fall," McConnell said.


Several potential objections to McConnell's suggestion arise.  First, would this short-term debt limit increase be coupled with offsetting short-term budget (ie, spending) concessions by Democrats?  Or are Senate Republicans prepared to help kick this can down the road a little further in exchange for...essentially nothing?  I called McConnell's office asking for a clarification of how a potential time-buying debt ceiling hike might be structured.  I await a response.

More importantly, even if Republicans could extract some modest spending cuts in exchange for a temporary debt ceiling hike, they would likely surrender precious negotiating leverage in the process.  Remember, it's the White House, not the GOP, that has been issuing dire warnings of impending calamity if Congress fails to increase the national debt limit prior to the August deadline.  In other words, Democrats have the most invested in getting this dirty (but necessary) deed accomplished.   Then there's the pesky little issue of the 2010 election, in which Americans spoke very clearly and demanded fiscal restraint in the face of a two-year spending binge.  Oh, and the public absolutely despises the prospect of raising the ceiling.

All of this is to say that the GOP holds a strong hand at the Biden-led negotiating table.  The clock -- the looming debt deadline -- is an especially potent card.  If Republicans signal a willingness to extend this process on a piecemeal basis, they'd undercut one of their strongest leverage points in one fell swoop.  The idea here is to seize this moment by tethering one unpalatable task -- which both sides begrudgingly acknowledge is non-optional -- to the process of making systemic changes to a dysfunctional and unsustainable spending and entitlement regime.  A sense of urgency and concern over significant political risk must play a central role in forcing Democrats to agree to an acceptable deal.  If the urgency and political risks are severely mitigated by a precedent of temporary fixes, Democrats will feel far less pressure to make some of the "tough choices" President Obama likes to talk about.

Also, we've seen this movie before.  Democrats (who controlled both chambers at the time) refused to introduce a budget for FY 2010 2011.  As a result, Congress passed a series of short-term continuing resolutions instead.  Democrats exploited the constant (and exaggerated) threat of a government shutdown to feed a mentality of emergency.  And what did Republicans receive for playing along with this game?  Two rewards: (1) An 11th hour mediocre-at-best CR deal that featured laughably meager cuts, and (2) continued Democratic unwillingness to fulfill their fiduciary duties by introducing a budget. 

As of today, it's been 782 days since Harry Reid's Senate offered a budget.  As I've outlined repeatedly, this is a naked, irresponsible political strategy -- but based on past experience, why shouldn't Democrats employ it?  Republicans can caterwaul until they're blue in the face, but Democrats have learned that confronted with a tough deadline, Republicans will ultimately accept insufficient, temporary band-aid "solutions."

McConnell is right to worry that a short-term debt ceiling hike, unaccompanied by meaningful root-and-branch reforms, would result in "the same discussion" cropping up in the fall.  So why open the door to delay?   The longer this process drags on, the closer to 2012 it lurches -- further politicizing the process and increasing the likelihood of grandstanding on both sides.  Unless there's a major factor I'm overlooking, it seems clear that Republicans should adhere to the current debt ceiling deadline and demand the very best deal possible.


UPDATE - I exchanged emails with a Senior Republican aide familiar with the negotiations.  He stressed that "no one is really suggesting [a short term fix] at this point," although McConnell's comments on CBS struck me as something of a trial balloon.  If, hypothetically, a temportary debt ceiling increase were under serious discussion to give Team Biden more breathing room, the aide emphasized that any hike "would have to be accompanied with cuts -- certainly no more blank check debt ceiling increases are going to pass either chamber."  While that's welcome news, the entire tactic still makes me queasy, for reasons discussed above.


Guy Benson

Guy Benson is Townhall.com's Senior Political Editor. Follow him on Twitter @guypbenson.

Author Photo credit: Jensen Sutta Photography